Kristen Gill encourages the curiosity of her young students by using the concepts of geo-literacy to get them thinking about complex global issues. She has been teaching for 17 years and is currently teaching grade five at Montroyal Elementary School in North Vancouver. She is a Certified National Geographic Educator, making her a part of a worldwide community of educators, and in 2016 she received the Grosvenor Fellowship. For the past few years, she has also done workshops for teachers and has volunteered with district-level learning teams, including Aboriginal Education and Curriculum Implementation. You can check out her blog here.
What inspired you to take a more geographic focus in your teaching?
I started to teach with a geographic lens because geography is so much more than maps. I worked in an International Baccalaureate school and got a lot of experience doing global studies and projects with kids. I changed my method of teaching and philosophy — thinking about big ideas and how our whole planet is interconnected. In the last four years, I’ve tried to have a globally-minded classroom and to have my kids really question everything, because they’re going to be the next generation of contributing citizens.
What do you emphasize in the workshops you do for other teachers?
The biggest thing is to really think of the purpose of what you’re teaching. I think an even bigger lesson is to get the children to question more. Not just memorizing facts, but to think about what they mean. Think of the outcome and where you want kids to go with this.
I did a workshop for teachers on geographic literacy. I show them different tools to get the kids to do more compare-and-contrast – little things like Google Timelapse, a free app where you can do a time lapse of 20 years worth of satellite photos. Teachers who didn’t know about that before realize that they can use that to globalize their classroom.
What are some of the challenges or benefits of teaching younger kids?
I love the age group I work with because you can have fantastic conversations with them and they can understand philosophies and ideas. They can understand negative government policies and they can have a reaction to it, but they’re still young enough to have that positive outlook and really question why some things are happening.
They’re so enthusiastic. I have the privilege of introducing them to so many new ideas. And not everything is positive — in my province, we’re working on reconciliation issues and environment issues. This age group is curious and motivated and you can ask the good questions. I can get them to really think about what they’re doing and the impact they can have.
When you’re building a lesson plan, what is the path you want to take with your students?
First of all, I want them to become contributing global citizens. My whole year is scaffolded onto itself and I organize the topics in a specific order. For each new topic, I start local and I pull the concept out of it and then work on transferring that concept to a global application.
An example would be the next unit I’m starting with my kids. We’ll start with BC resources, and after we learn about what Canada has, we look at the whole planet. Like, who else mines for gold? Who else has fracking? We talk about how the different issues that affect those things are in every country, not just us.
When I talk about geo-literacy with the kids I break it down. It’s about understanding how the world works and our role in it. It’s a mixture of human geography, why they live where they live, and the choices that people make, how that affects the environment and in turn affects us. Its about understanding how everything on the planet interacts with each other.
What did you take away from the Grosvenor Fellowship and how did you apply that to your classroom?
The fellowship brought me a renewed sense of motivation into how to globalize your classroom, how to incorporate your curriculum into things around the world. An issue in Ireland, when I went there, is peat burning, and although it’s not an issue we have, I talked to the kids about how we use oil and forestry. I was able to bring back experiences I had there and show kids how things are different yet similar.
It motivated me to keep things global and inspire other teachers to go outside the curriculum. For example, it’s great if you know what a brown bear in BC likes to eat, but if you can get the kids thinking about animal adaptation, they can go on their next family vacation, on another continent, and they can connect that to the animals they see there. That’s what I mean about teaching by concept. Some of the best parts of my job is when kids make those connections. It just makes me smile inside.